Good Monk, Bad Monk

Who, apart from Benedictines, is interested in what St Benedict has to say in the first chapter of his Rule about the different kinds of monks? True, it may provide a little ammunition for those who want to criticize an individual, or even a whole community, but rarely is it seen for what it is, an introduction to monastic living with all its pitfalls. In sketching the characters of good and bad monks, Benedict is setting before us a thumbnail of the whole monastic enterprise.

Yesterday he stressed what to look for in the good monk: obedience to rule and abbot, and a life lived in community or, if truly experienced in the ways of the Spirit, a hermit life, but one still grounded in that obedience to rule and abbot. In other words, the good monk is always under obedience — to a rule that is imperfect, to an individual who is flawed, but both seen by the monk as vehicles of grace. Contrast that with what we read today about the sarabaites and gyrovagues. They are not necessarily bad men, as we might understand the term, but they are choosey about their allegiance, assuming that they know best, keen to try their own experiments in monastic living without first submitting to years of regular discipline. They are fundamentally unstable, always pushing on to find the perfect community, the perfect way of life, and in danger of settling for what is merely comfortable or convenient.

I think RB 1 has something to say to all of us who are sincere in our search for God. I am glad that I had many years as a nun in a big community with a long tradition behind it before I came here. I think it has given our community a certain sureness of touch, a fundamentally humble, questing approach, enabling us to be orthodox in faith and practice but also innovative. That is not, however, something we can take for granted. What Benedict does not say in this chapter is at least as important as what he does. The obedience to rule and abbot that he singles out as the monk’s safeguard is something he will elaborate upon at some length. Ultimately, the monk is responsible for setting a guard about his heart and mind. He wakes every morning to hear the voice of the Lord commanding him and lives by faith, following the guidance of the gospel, but that is a choice he must make anew every morning. Mercifully, we have a vow of conversion to help us.